Mother and Child: Postpartum Defilement and Circumcision
Parashat Shemini, ends in chapter 11 of Leviticus with “the law of beast and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moves in the waters, and of every creature that swarms upon the earth” (11:46). The body of law in that chapter encompasses not only the rules governing consumption of animals, but also the rules concerning their defilement. It differentiates both “between the living thing that may be eaten and the living thing that may not be eaten” and “between the unclean and the clean” (11:47).
With the beginning of parashat Tazria, in chapter 12, the Torah picks up the latter topic, and turns from defilement originating in animals to defilement whose source lies in humans: a woman who has given birth (chapter 12); an individual suffering from tzara’at (chapters 13-14); and an individual afflicted with a genital emission (chapter 15).
The Laws of Leviticus 12
According to chapter 12, a woman after childbirth becomes subject to a two-stage period of defilement. In the first stage, she has the status of a menstruant woman (niddah), while in the second, she is defiled only to the extent that she cannot have contact with the holy or enter the temple. In the case of a male child, the first stage lasts seven days, and the second, thirty-three. The stages run twice as long in the case of female offspring: fourteen days and sixty-six days.
In legislating for the case of a male child, the Torah notes after describing the first, seven-day stage of defilement (Lev. 12:3):
וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי יִמּוֹל בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ.
And on the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.
This statement is grammatically awkward, as the last-mentioned individual in 12:2—the expected antecedent of the pronoun “his”—is the mother, not the son. Substantively, too, there is no apparent intrinsic connection between the son’s circumcision and the mother’s defilement.
Birth and Creation
A solution to the puzzle posed by 12:3 begins with the recognition that the categories that structure the laws of defilement—the animal and the human, birth and illness—reflect their elemental character, or their dependence on basic biological facts, or in scriptural terms, their relationship to the creation stories at the beginning of Genesis. The words that Leviticus uses to describe the defiling childbirth reinforce this relationship. The woman “bears seed” (tazria’), like the seed-yielding (mazria’) grasses of Genesis 1:11. Her offspring is not a son or daughter, but a “male” (zakhar) or “female” (nekevah), like the human beings of Genesis 1:27, created “male (zakhar) and female (nekevah).”
Rashi’s first comment on Tazria, drawn from Vayikra (Leviticus) Rabbah, identifies another manifestation of the relationship between the laws of defilement and Genesis:
א”ר שמלאי כשם שיצירתו של אדם אחר כל בהמה חיה ועוף במעשה בראשית כך תורתו נתפרשה אחר תורת בהמה חיה ועוף
Said R. Simlai: “Just as his (i.e., mankind’s) formation followed that of all the animals and beasts and birds in the act of creation, so his law is explicated after the law of the animals and beasts and birds.”
Making Postpartum Defilement More Jewish
The laws of defilement in Leviticus are, in short, universalist, not insofar as they also apply to non-Jews, but insofar as they express assumptions about the natural world and about the human condition as such. It therefore comes as little surprise that they echo and in some cases draw on equivalents in neighboring cultures. A glance at Jacob Milgrom’s epochal commentary on Leviticus confirms that the notion of postpartum defilement was common among Israel’s neighbors (and in traditional societies until today). But eighth-day circumcision was not; it is a distinctively Israelite or Jewish practice.
We arrive, then, at a possible explanation for the reference to circumcision in the law of postpartum impurity. To conceive of postpartum defilement in connection with eighth-day circumcision is to transform the latter, too, into a distinctively Jewish practice. The mother’s “return” from her menstruant-like defilement coordinates with her son’s entry into the Abrahamic pact, so that the postpartum impurity regimen is no longer simply a matter of biology, but becomes tinged with covenantal history.
But what, more precisely, does this coordination entail? What claim, ultimately, is being made for the relationship between postpartum defilement and circumcision? The text is too vague to allow us to answer this question, but by bringing other material to bear, we may tentatively venture an explanation for the text’s vagueness.
The Purity Status of the Newborn
Consider the purity status not of the mother but of the newborn. Is the newborn, too, defiled to the same degree as the mother, perhaps by virtue of its intimate contact with her? The Torah does not say. The Sifra, the earliest rabbinic commentary on Leviticus, raises the possibility that the newborn is also defiled, but rejects it. Various texts from the Second Temple period, however, indeed deem the newborn defiled.
Thus, for example, according to the book of Jubilees (3:8-12), from the second century B.C.E., Adam was permitted to enter the garden of Eden, which the book conceives of as a proto-Temple, only forty days after he was created, and Eve only eighty days after she was formed. These periods correspond exactly to those of postpartum defilement in Leviticus 12, but Adam and Eve are “newborns,” not mothers. We may therefore infer that the circles in which the book of Jubilees was authoritative believed that the mother’s defilement is transmitted to or bound up with that of the infant.
From this perspective, Leviticus 12:3 appears to convey that the male newborn’s stringent defilement comes to an end with the eighth-day circumcision, and that, in turn, the mother’s period of stringent defilement is curtailed for reasons having to do with her son’s circumcision. The expected, longer period remains in place after the birth of a girl.
How far back in time does the debate about the newborn’s purity status date? Views on this question are first attested in sources relatively late in the Second Temple period, after the Torah was canonized. But it is far from impossible that the debate preceded Leviticus 12, especially in view of the fact that many other cultures from the Ancient Near East deemed the child defiled.
If the latter is the case, then the possibility arises that Leviticus 12:3 is purposely vague. The verse implicitly stipulates a relationship between postpartum defilement and circumcision, but intentionally refrains from taking a position on that relationship, because the relationship is a matter of debate. Here, then, we may find evidence of the Torah’s character as a “compromise” or “inclusivist” document. The Torah famously compromises between different accounts of creation and of Israelite history by combining them. In this case, arguably, as in others, it compromises by leaving points of debate undecided.
From the reference to circumcision in the law of postpartum defilement we may (tentatively, and more tentatively in the second case than in the first) find evidence of two general features of the Torah.
First, the Torah adopts practices that inscribe widely held assumptions about human nature, and adapts them to make them its own. In Leviticus 12, the defiling force of childbirth enters into conversation with the covenantal rite of circumcision. This encounter leaves seams—the grammatical and substantive gaps between Leviticus 12:2 and 12:3—but the very seams expose the process, and thus model for us a mode of Jewish engagement with the world. Judaism develops in dialogue with the world, encountering the world’s wisdom with its own, and producing, through that encounter, something new.
Second, the Torah is a product of multiple voices. Sometimes it manages the multiplicity in symphonic fashion, by combining voices. Sometimes, as perhaps in Leviticus 12, it manages the multiplicity through silence or circumlocution, by refraining from adjudicating matters of debate.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
March 23, 2014
January 13, 2021
Dr. Tzvi Novick is the Abrams Jewish Thought and Culture Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. He has an M.A. from Yeshiva University and a Ph.D. from Yale. His research focuses on law and ethics in rabbinic Judaism. He has also written on topics in the Hebrew Bible and Second Temple Judaism, and on Jewish liturgical poetry (piyyut) from late antiquity.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series